It’s fascinating to watch Colorado Springs City Councilors lurch slowly forward with a public process to determine whether they should ask the voters to fire them from the utility board of directors.
Should an appointed board of “experts” take over? And if so, who should appoint the board? The mayor, council or both? Or should the new board be elected? Appropriately enough, council directed CSU to commission a professional poll and find out which governance alternative Colorado Springs residents prefer.
Taken from a poll of 531 registered voters in Colorado Springs conducted on March 17 and March 20 by Magellan Strategies, the survey has a margin of error of +/- 4.25 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.
“After hearing about all alternative governance options,” Magellan stated in summary, “it is clear that voters do not want city council members to continue serving as the utilities board of directors. Only 12 percent or less of respondents preferred this option when compared to all other alternatives.
“The alternative with the strongest support calls for a governance structure where voters directly elect members of the utilities board of directors, with 47 percent choosing it as the best alternative,” the summary continued.
“Respondents overwhelmingly disapprove of an alternative where the city council, the mayor or a combination of both the mayor and city council appoint all members of the utilities board of directors. Among all respondents, seven in 10 disapproved of this alternative.
“The alternative that received the strongest support would have all members of the utilities board of directors directly elected by the voters of Colorado Springs. Among all respondents, 65 percent approved of this alternative and only 28 percent disapproved.”
Those are clear numbers. The path forward seems obvious: Ask the voters next April to confirm the poll results. Yes for those in favor of a new, independently elected board; no for those who want council to continue in its role.
But, as Councilor Jill Gaebler pointed out, it’s not so simple.
“I think that the poll also shows that a majority of community members don’t know who governs utilities,” she said. “People want to elect the board and I’m really open to that. But those who want an appointed board want to ensure that board members have ‘appropriate experience.’”
According to Colorado Springs Forward, a powerful group of business, political and nonprofit leaders, an appointed board is long overdue.
In a long position paper posted on its website, CSF noted that five studies since 1993 have called for a separate, appointed body. CSF approvingly cited a 2005 Charter Review Committee recommendation calling for a nine-member appointed board with “representatives from the following professional sectors: financial, local business, accounting, engineering and a local attorney with utility experience.”
An elected board? No, thanks!
“Colorado Springs Forward has made the decision NOT to support a newly formed board that would be comprised of a majority of separately elected members,” the website said.
That’s because such a board “would be missing a key component of the previous five comprehensive studies on utilities governance recommending a number of appointed positions, and Colorado Springs Forward agrees that having the majority of any new board comprised of appointed positions, based upon a set of business and professional experience criteria, is a key principle of creating a successful separate board, citing the 1993 study that called for ‘a focus on business over politics’ with regard to the board make-up.”
A long-ignored study from 23 years ago seems like a flimsy framework to rely upon for such a significant step.
It’s also interesting that no specific instances of board incompetence or wrong-headed policy decisions are mentioned.
They aren’t mentioned because utility boards during the past quarter of a century have done a pretty good job.
During that period rates have remained relatively low, the not-quite billion-dollar Southern Delivery System came in on time and under budget, the gas-fired Front Range Power Plant came online, renewable energy sources were developed and the board is moving cautiously ahead with closing the Martin Drake coal-fired power plant sooner rather than later.
But during the past two decades, Utilities’ decisions have become politicized. The bitter wrangling concerning Drake and the Neumann pollution control system is an example, as are the just-concluded stormwater wars between Pueblo and Colorado Springs.
Were the decisions all good ones? Of course not. CSU’s gas hedging program bet on gas price increases, but the market cratered. In retrospect, plans for closing Drake should have been initiated 10 years ago.
Would an appointed board have made different decisions? Maybe, but would an appointed board have had the cojones to authorize SDS?
We don’t know. And it’s worth noting that all the policy recommendations that CSF cites were made prior to the 2011 change in the form of government. Those who wrote the “strong mayor” initiative couldn’t include a section putting CSU under the mayor’s control because doing so would have violated the city’s “single subject” ordinance. But that doesn’t mean they’ve given up.
If council declines to refer a measure establishing an elected board to the voters, expect to see an initiated measure on the ballot.
Dueling proposals! Well, why not?
Meanwhile, councilors are hosting multiple community meetings in coming months, seeking input. Democracy — ain’t it wonderful?